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House of Commons

Tuesday 31 January 2006

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Leicester City Council Bill

Liverpool City Council Bill

Maidstone Borough Council Bill

Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): How many radiographers there are in the NHS in England. [46700]

The Secretary of State for Health (Ms Patricia Hewitt): At September 2004, nearly 14,000 radiographers were working in the NHS in England, an increase of more than 2,000 or 18 per cent. since 1997.

Mr. Jones: The Secretary of State will be aware that an article in the British Medical Journal of 14 January reported that many radiotherapy departments are overstretched and understaffed, which was having a substantial effect on patients' survival. The article reported that

and during that time,

Mr. Speaker: Order. Will the hon. Gentleman resume his seat? Supplementary questions should be brief. Yesterday, there were several points of order from Back Benchers complaining that they were not called, so a supplementary question must be brief. We will leave the hon. Gentleman and allow the Minister to reply. Of course, the Secretary of State and other Ministers must abide by this ruling as well.

Ms Hewitt: I am delighted to be able to inform the hon. Gentleman that the vacancy rate for diagnostic
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radiography has fallen. It was just below 3.5 per cent. in 2005, and although it is higher for therapeutic radiography, that, too, has fallen significantly in recent years. That, in part, is because we have doubled the number of students entering radiography courses, as well as increasing the number of radiographers in employment.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): Would my right hon. Friend like to take a trip to Medway Maritime hospital—

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Certainly not.

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend would, if he wanted an MRI scan, because urgent MRI scans are completed within two weeks and non-urgent ones within 12 weeks. That has been achieved by a flexible working pattern—a six-day working pattern, with a 12-hour day. Is that not the future for the NHS?

Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I am delighted to have the opportunity to congratulate staff at Medway Maritime hospital, who have slashed the waiting time for urgent and for routine MRI scans. They have taken advantage of the work force reforms that we introduced with "Agenda for Change" and the new roles, particularly for assistant radiographers and advanced practitioners. Unlike the Opposition, we do not simply talk about waiting times—we take action to cut them.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): The figures quoted by the Secretary of State sound good, but the real issue is the skills shortage among senior radiographers, partly because targets have hindered specialist training, and, according to the Royal College of Radiologists, the significantly longer waiting times since 1998 that cancer patients have had to endure. We have raised the issue in the past. The Government said they would look into the problem, but little has been done. In order to move the discussion on, will the Secretary of State tell us how the Government can provide the right solution to this growing problem if they cannot quantify the problem, because they continually refuse to measure radiotherapy waiting times?

Ms Hewitt: As part of our commitment to reduce to a maximum of 18 weeks the total wait from GP referral right through to treatment, we will start this year to measure the hitherto hidden waiting times, including those for MRI and other scans. Far from refusing to accept that there is a problem, we have been taking action to deal with it. We have set earlier targets to speed up treatment as well as diagnosis for cancer patients, so we are already seeing the waiting times for cancer patients falling dramatically. I hope the hon. Gentleman welcomes that.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): My late father was a consultant radiologist in Wolverhampton—a seat that I now represent, of course—for many years. I am therefore aware of the vast changes that have taken place in radiography. The number of radiographers that we need has grown
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considerably given the skills that they are now expected to exercise. Is my right hon. Friend sure that we have enough training places? When I took this up with the Government four years ago, we clearly did not.

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is right to refer to the situation that pertained four years ago. We have doubled—in the case of diagnostic radiographers, more than doubled—the number of students taking training. Three new radiology academies were opened in 2005. We are increasing training capacity without affecting patient care.


2. Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): How many cases of HIV/AIDS there were in England and Wales in the latest period for which figures are available. [46701]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Caroline Flint): There were 5,171 new diagnoses of HIV in England and Wales for 2005 reported by the end of December 2005.

Mr. Evans: Those are disturbing figures. In 1987, as the Minister will know, there were 2,500 cases; now, she has given a figure of 5,500, and it will probably be nearer to 7,000 by the time the statistics come in. Almost 500 people died of AIDS last year. The Secretary of State said that she believes in action, so let us have some action. When are we going to see the advertising campaign that was promised last year? Will the Minister guarantee that we will focus on ensuring that young people learn about how HIV is transmitted and how they can protect themselves against it?

Caroline Flint: One of the reasons the results are as I explained is that we have better reporting mechanisms for HIV. Having said that, we should not be complacent about the figures. We fund organisations such as the Terrence Higgins Trust to target, in particular, the gay community and the African community, where the prevalence of HIV is due partly to HIV acquired overseas. That is why the work that we do through the Department for International Development is so important. I am delighted that last week it was announced that sexual health is now one of six service priorities for the NHS, with a 48-hour target for access to genito-urinary medicine clinics. That goes alongside the £300 million of investment that we have put into this area. There is an important need to deliver, based on the White Paper—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): When we arrest people and test them for drugs through the judicial process, why do we not at the same time offer them tests for blood-borne diseases—not only HIV, but hepatitis C and B?

Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I am happy to discuss those issues with my colleagues in the Home Office. In relation to prison health, the changed arrangements mean that the services
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provided to those in custody as regards transmitted infections and drug use should improve over the next few years.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): In my constituency and across Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, HIV and the diagnosis of AIDS has gone up by 1,500 per cent., yet there is now only one county sexual health promotion adviser, and his job is on the line. Our GUM clinic has had cuts. How can the Government say that sexual health is a priority when we are seeing massive increases in HIV and AIDS among the heterosexual population and massive cuts in GUM clinics and sexual health promotion?

Caroline Flint: I did not hear the period to which the hon. Lady was referring in relation to the increases that she mentioned. Part of our task is to facilitate the ability of people who may have acquired a sexually-transmitted infection, and within that, HIV, to come forward. That is partly why we introduced testing among pregnant women. Some 92 per cent. of HIV-infected women are diagnosed before delivery. In the past year, take-up of voluntary confidential testing has gone up from 54 per cent. to 75 per cent. We have to do more. However, I welcome the importance given to this within the NHS priorities. We must, on the basis of the White Paper, consider how better we can deliver sexual health services. Part of my job is to see how we can redesign services that are fit for purpose in dealing with this important area.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that individuals who are already suffering from another sexually transmitted disease are more susceptible to HIV infection if they are exposed to the virus. How soon does she think that all primary care trusts will be able to deliver the target of people having access to a GUM clinic within 48 hours?

Caroline Flint: The target is set for 2008 and we are heading for that. I am pleased to say that some primary care trusts are already making huge progress. Part of our job in the next couple of years is to identify best practice to ensure that it can be spread more quickly.

It is important that those issues are addressed for many reasons. For example, we shall roll out a national screening programme for chlamydia, and that is especially important not only in tackling a sexually transmitted infection but in halting the number of women who find that they have infertility problems 10 years down the road.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Does the Under-Secretary know that the new charging system that was introduced in 2004 deters the prescribing of antiretroviral drugs for HIV-positive pregnant women, especially those who come to the United Kingdom without documentation, or have been refused asylum or leave to remain? What will she do about it?

Caroline Flint: It is important to recognise that the national health service is for those who are eligible for it. It would send the wrong message if we said that people who were not entitled to that service should take
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advantage of it. Having said that, there are several categories, including asylum seekers, for whom access to HIV treatment and services is and will continue to be available. The problems do not apply only to HIV treatment but to other matters, which we must tackle sensitively but appropriately given NHS resources.

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